I often have parents come to my office wanting guidance on how much freedom they should allow their teen to have. Of course, the answer to that greatly depends on variables such as the individual teen, their life experiences, the amount of family support they have, their level of responsibility, level of maturity, etc. Many times, parents want to protect their teen from painful life experiences, especially if the parent(s) had to face many challenges during their adolescence.
Sometimes, though, being too protective and/or rigid can backfire and the teen will rebel. The key is to create a balance between dependence and independence as the adolescent slowly transitions to adulthood, typically between the ages of 10 and 25.
While many parents underestimate their teen’s readiness for certain privileges and freedoms, most teens overestimate their readiness to take on certain privileges and responsibilities. I typically tell teens that “freedom equals responsibility,” meaning that one needs to demonstrate responsible behavior before expecting to have certain freedoms. For example, if I am to have the freedom of driving a car, I need to demonstrate that I am responsible enough to follow traffic laws, have my driver’s license, car insurance, etc.
Parents and teens often experience a push/pull in their relationships when deciding what freedoms are appropriate for the teens to have, which can create a lot of stress within the family system. The fact a teen is motivated to push for more freedom and independence and the parent’s task is to guide and protect the teen means there is often discord. This is a normal part of the process of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. The transition is a period of regular readjustment and can intensify conflict between parents and teens.
Parents are responsible for instilling values in their children about what is right and what is wrong. Given that teens often feel a sense of entitlement to make their own decisions about issues that impact their lives, it is important for parents to have clarity about the contexts in which they will exercise their authority and in which contexts they will allow more freedom. While teens undoubtedly will make mistakes, parents need to trust them to make some of their own decisions and to learn from their missteps.
There is no way for parents to know for certain if their teen is going to make the wrong choices. The chances of a teen making the right choice are increased when parents believe in the teen’s ability to do so. That said, trust must be earned—and in order to earn trust, teens must act responsibly. In order for teens to grow up, they need to have the opportunity to experience the freedom of making their own decisions (age appropriate) and the opportunity to learn from mistakes. When parents place a certain level of trust in their teen, the teen will be more likely to respect the parents as well as their rules.
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